Officially, the United States has no religious test for elected officials. The prohibition is right there in Article VI, section 3 of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Accordingly, the government may not prevent an individual from seeking or holding office because of their particular religious faith or lack thereof.
Voters, however, are an entirely different matter. Since 2000, more than two-thirds of Americans have told Pew pollsters that they want the President to be a person of faith, which effectively imposes a test of religious belief for candidates. And some voters go even further—often explicitly encouraged by their religious leaders—by reserving their support for candidates who openly profess theological beliefs similar to their own.
At the CNN debate on Tuesday night, Anderson Cooper asked the GOP presidential aspirants whether voters should subject candidates to such religious tests. Answers ranged from the enthusiastically pro-test position of Newt Gingrich–“How can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”–to the nonsensical response from Rick Perry–“I can no more remove my faith than I can that I’m the son of a tenant farmer. The issue, are we going to be individuals who stand by our faith?”
Only Mitt Romney was willing to challenge the concept of a religious test. “That idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling,” he said. “The founders of this country went to great lengths to make sure—and even put in the Constitution—that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion.” The answer was self-serving, yes, given that Romney has the most to lose if Republican voters judge him by his Mormon faith. But it was also right.
Americans wouldn’t accept an ethnic or gender test for office. Why then do so many voters impose a de facto religious requirement on their candidates?
In some instances, a candidate’s religion is simply a matter of tribal identity. In 1960, 78% of Catholic voters chose Kennedy; 62% of Protestant voters did not. Similarly, in the 2008 Republican primaries, the vast majority of Mormon voters supported Romney while evangelical Christians largely backed his opponents.
Some voters, particularly conservative evangelicals, are like Pastor Robert Jeffress, whose comments at the recent Values Voters Summit brought the question of religious tests back into the news. In an interview on CNN after his speech, Jeffress said that “Born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian…to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.” He went on, “As Christians we have the duty to prefer and select Christians as our leaders.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who also spoke at the Summit, echoed that belief: “The next President needs to be a man of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith.”
For many voters, however, religion is simply a proxy. It’s a way of getting a sense of a candidate’s moral foundation, his philosophical worldview. Voters aren’t wrong to care about the moral views that guide a candidate. The problem is that religion has become so politicized that it actually gets in the way of providing that moral clarity. Yet liberals and conservatives alike have fallen for the idea that a candidate’s religious beliefs are the key to predicting how they will govern.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I taped a segment for On the Media about how reporters cover religion on the campaign trail. In an unaired portion of the interview, I got into a debate about the relevance of candidates’ theological beliefs with host Bob Garfield, who argued that everything should be on the table. “Shouldn’t we know if Rick Santorum believes homosexuality is a sin?” asked Garfield. No. The only thing we should care about is whether a candidate like Santorum would seek to ban gay marriage as President. So just ask him that. In the end, his motivation for taking the position is irrelevant.
Often in modern politics, however, the conversation dwells at length on the question of religious motivation, which supporters and detractors alike believe tells them everything they need to know about a politician. The conservative supporters of a Republican candidate see opposition to homosexuality or evolution as evidence that the politician will support their entire agenda. And liberal detractors use the same beliefs to belittle the candidate as backwards and anti-science. Sometimes they’re both right. But not always. There are limits to what we can know about how a President would respond to real-world problems in real-time. And it’s their decisions, not their deity, that really matter.
Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.